Indiana University Press is publishing a book in 2003 which reconsiders Peoples Temple as a black religious organization, rather than as a new religious movement. Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America, edited by Anthony B. Pinn of Macalester College, Mary R. Sawyer of Iowa State University, and Rebecca Moore of San Diego State University, gathers together a series of essays which looks at the group from the perspective of black religious studies.
Scholars generally identify Peoples Temple as a cult, and compare it to other new religious movements with little regard for its unique racial composition. This new book examines the Temple as a black religious group, and takes into account issues of race and racism, politics, and the historical and cultural milieu of its development.
“We reject the premise that African American members of Peoples Temple had no agency,” writes Mary R. Sawyer in the Introduction to the volume. “We reject the adequacy of the conventional categories of cult and sect for describing this movement.” On the contrary, the book seeks to re-evaluate the African American influences and values within the Temple.
The book includes three important essays by black scholars writing in 1979 and 1980, and then presents current analyses of the Temple’s political involvement, its interaction with San Francisco’s black establishment, its worship style and language, and other issues.
There were a number of similarities Peoples Temple shared with other forms of black religion, including a concern with “exodus and exile as paradigms of transformation,” according to Anthony B. Pinn, another of the co-editors. He notes the dangers inherent in labeling black religious movements — from those led by Nat Turner and Denmark Vessey to that led by Jim Jones — as odd, and removed from their historical contexts.
The book is scheduled to be published in time for the 25th anniversary of the deaths in Jonestown.